The sudden sound of vigorous drum and cymbal music from outside the tent galvanized the audience. Lama J. leaned over and told me that this was the first drum signal, a ten minute warning that the performance was about to begin. Last minute stragglers rushed in and found seating. Others checked their supplies of snacks and beer and settled the children and dogs, one or two of them having to be taken out quickly to relieve themselves. Another drum signal sounded giving a five minute warning to the actors to be ready to perform.At the third drum beats, the audience quieted down awaiting the entrance of the players and the introductory ritual performance that began every play. A smoking pot of juniper branches was brought in and put in the center by the tree.
Suddenly, from the player’s entrance, all of the Lha mo actors began filing in, dance–walking and costumed according to their part in the introductory section, which also signified their position in the troupe.
First came the Hunters, dressed in baggy black pants and white shirts sashed in red and tucked into colorful dance boots. A striped jacket and a red apron over which a fringed net skirt was wrapped completed the costumes. They wore huge two dimensional masks said to be representative of Lha mo patron, Thang stong Rgyal po, made of cloth covered and appliquéd cardboard decorated with cowries and embroidered features and symbols. Each mask was attached to a cloth headpiece from which a cascade of the five sacred colors fell to the ground in back.Each hunter carried in his hand a symbolic arrow wrapped in the five sacred colors. The role of the Hunters is performed by older, more experienced players and most of the lead male roles come from this group. The director–teacher of the troupe is always in this division.
The Headman or Patriarch followed, dressed in a sashed long Tibetan man’s gown with an open sleeveless over robe made of alternate panels of striped and plain fabric. He wore the special dance boots and on his head was a very large, yellow conical felt hat. He carried a long staff or bow in his hand. The Headman is played by one of the senior members of the troupe. There usually are only one or two in a troupe depending upon the size of the group.
Next in line were the Khandroma (mkha’ ‘gro ma), rainbow–bodied sky going Goddesses, dressed in sashed Tibetan gowns with open sleeveless over–robes of alternating panels of striped and plain fabric. They also wore the special dance boots. On their heads they wore five paneled crowns with rainbow fabric pleated sides attached to a cloth head piece. On the panels were painted the symbols of the five transcendental wisdoms.
The Khandroma are performed by the remaining players in the troupe and are usually the younger men and boys — and women, if women are included in the troupe. This division supplies the lead female roles. The youngest actors play the small animals, such as parrot, deer and wild pigs, and also supply children’s roles such as young princes. I must admit that I was quite startled when I saw my first mustachioed Khandroma in another troupe’s performance, but the actor carried his role off so well that the hairy lip was soon forgotten.
The musicians playing their drum and cymbals came last, taking their place at the side.
A Hunter began to sing a special aria in praise of the Juniper, to initiate the purification and taming of the ground. The others added a chorus which came in on the end of a line and echoed the phrase. I was excited by the power of this compelling vocal style which I was hearing for the first time in an actual performance setting, and which would carry me through the next eight hours of performance, to say nothing of the following three days!
While the Headman and the Khandroma remained standing in a row facing to the west, awaiting their turn to sing and dance, the Hunters, still singing their song, formed a large circle around the tree in the middle of the stage. They began to perform a special dance to drum and cymbal accompaniment. At a very fast pace they bent their bodies almost parallel to the ground and jumped so high over one leg each time they turned, that it seemed as if they were flying through the air.
The Hunters continued to perform fast and slow circle dance compositions to percussion accompaniment, alternating with songs praising nature, explaining their (Hunters’) origins in all the three realms, upper, middle, and lower, and ending with auspicious verses. Starting with the Hunters’ performance, periods of witty and sometimes scatological insults and banter between the Hunters and the Headman and later the Khandromas were interspersed between the songs and dances.At one point, much to the glee of the audience, all the Khandroma were assigned rather rude nicknames. Finally, the Hunters called out the Headman and Khandroma and told them to have a go for a little while. Upon this invitation, the Headman hit his staff on his thumb ring, the cymbals sounded and the Khandromas did rounds of hand gestures called "lotus turnings" to the rhythm of the drum and cymbals. The Headman then began singing his special songs accompanied by hand gestures, which with his stately dances, "let fall the rain of blessings."Finally the Khandroma sang their songs, each one taking a line, interspersed with slow and fast dancing. They sang mainly about the accomplishments and attributes of Thang stong rgyal po.
After a slow dance and final song, all the players did homage to the Dalai Lama (his photograph), prostrating themselves and touching their foreheads to the ground three times. I noticed a few players leaving the stage, and soon discovered that the day’s play was about to begin and these players had early entrances. The other players remained encircling the edges of the stage.
One of the Hunters, the director–teacher of the group, then stepped forward, announcing the successful completion of the introductory ritual and that today they would present the story of Padma ‘od ‘bar, "so please rivet your ears to the story." After this announcement was echoed by another Hunter, he went on to recite the background and setting for Padma ‘od ‘bar. The narration finished with a description of the first character about to enter, and as we all looked expectantly to the actor’s entrance, the Hunter announced "Heretic King Log pa’i chos sbyin, please come to the center of the white floor of the King’s palace."
The drums and cymbals started playing the special music for the king who entered followed by two servants, one with an open umbrella. He was robed in a sashed silver brocade gown, carrying a fan and wearing a quilted silver cloth mask with large eye and mouth openings trimmed in red, and sporting a mustache and beard. It was topped with a white turban. He danced to drum and cymbal music in a stately turning style around the stage, stopped in front of the Dalai Lama’s portrait, bowed, ascended his throne, and the day’s play opened in the King’s court.